School opens to quarantined Thais
Classrooms turn to dorms to house returnees
The school break has left a religious school in Pattani empty, which creates an ideal space for a quarantine facility for Thai migrant workers heading home from neighbouring Malaysia during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In this time of crisis, we Thais are bound by a sense of responsibility," said Nimuktar Waba, director of the Darunsart Witthaya School, turned into a quarantine centre in Pattani.
He said the private school may not have much in terms of resources but there are buildings it can offer to authorities looking for a place to house people subject to mandatory quarantine.
Mr Nimuktar is a former member of the Wada political group based in the far South and served as an MP of the Puea Pandin Party in 2007.
The small school was opened in 1941. Despite its humble origins and status as a community school, Darunsart Witthaya has collected many awards for academic and extra-curricular achievements.
Now, the school looks starkly different. The classrooms normally filled with students are currently occupied by dozens of individuals placed under 14-day quarantine after returning from other countries, most from Malaysia.
Nurses and healthcare workers in protective gear check on their health.
Darunsart Witthaya was founded by Hayee Abdulloh Tamsu as the Saphan Mah ponoh religious school. In 1953, the school was taken over by Hayee Nima Waba.
Thirteen years later, it was registered as an educational outlet specialising in teaching Islam and was renamed Darunsart Witthaya.
In 1972, Hayee Nima served as headmaster and manager before being succeeded by his son, Mr Nimuktar.
Mr Nimuktar said although the school is located far from communities, its management has explained to residents that the people quarantined are not necessarily suffering from the coronavirus.
The quarantine practice also conforms to an Islamic religious principle which advocates collective help for people in need during a crisis.
He said other religious schools could also be transformed into quarantine facilities, if they do not have religious teachers in residence.
More quarantine space is required in the southern border provinces as many more Thai workers are returning from Malaysia.
The Thai workers in Malaysia send home money which boosts the economy in the southernmost border provinces. Before the current crisis many young people who could not find jobs locally after graduation crossed the border and took up employment in Malaysia.
They and their families were relatively immune from the effects of the 1997 financial meltdown in Thailand because they received their pay in Malaysia.
Now, the Covid-19 outbreak has pushed the workers back home, he said, prompting the government to extend financial aid to them.
Sompong Munkong, acting mayor of Muang Taluban municipality in Sai Buri district of Pattani, said 82 returnees were quarantined at Darunsart Witthaya School as of Saturday. Sixteen have since tested negative for infection and gone home.
Mr Sompong said some are stressed while undergoing quarantine. They would rather be reunited with their families instead of spending two weeks in isolation.
Those in quarantine are given full board and counselling to relieve stress. They are allowed family visits, although they are kept apart at a safe distance.
Maropee Jewae, 44, who is under quarantine at the school, said he was among a large number of Thai workers hired as fishing crew in Terengganu state in Malaysia. Younger people prefer to work in restaurants.
He is not paid a salary, but given a cut from the fish haul on each fishing trip. Each month, he makes around 7,000 baht.
Mr Maropee said every month, many fisherfolk usually spend a week of shore leave at home in the far South before returning to Malaysia.
But for now, they must stay for at least two weeks under quarantine away from their family homes.
Mr Maropee said some workers have crossed illegally back into Thailand to avoid the border clearance paperwork and the compulsory Covid-19 pre-registration.
Sommut Benjaluck, Prachachat Party MP for Pattani, said Darunsart Witthaya School has helped alleviate a shortage of quarantine facilities in the province. The school has room for up to 300 people.
He insisted no disease would spread from the school as anyone showing flu-like symptoms is immediately referred to the local hospital.